Thursday, April 2, 2015

M-STEP (A Teacher's Point of View)

I’m a school teacher in Michigan. We’re about to embark upon the M-STEP, which replaces the MEAP test. The state of Michigan, like most states, has determined what all of our core standards must be, and then in its supposed wisdom, our state ascertained that it could write a test which proves once and for all whether or not our students, teachers, and schools are succeeding. I won’t go into any of the year-long mysteries about this assessment or technological issues involved in the taking of this tool. I won’t even go into the scheduling issues or stress factors or the fact that students are being exposed to the test for the first time and teachers only recently finding out what “might” be on it and what it’ll look like. It’s all for the good of education according to the legislators. School districts, teachers, and students will be judged by it. Students will learn if they’re proficient or not in a set of core standards that legislators decided would be best. But that is not what I’m writing about, lest you think I’m being negative. I’m writing about those students in my classroom who don’t care about the thing—and how much it bothers me.

Believe me, I hear the complaints and concerns of students, parents, and teachers alike, but my response is that it doesn’t matter. It’s a test. It’s required. It’s what we’re told to do, so we should do it. Maybe it’s fair and maybe it’s not, but why does that matter? Maybe it’s a bad test and maybe it’s not, but how should that affect people’s attitudes? One of my favorite quotes is “Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” There’s no way to prove that quote to be true, but what it’s saying is…improve your attitude and do what you have to do. Make the most of life’s circumstances. Stop whining, complaining, moaning, and groaning. Do your best with what life gives you. And what the public schools happen to be giving us right now are core standards and standardized tests. So we need to do them.

I have a lot of pet peeves in this world. Most have to do with grammar. Some have to do with people with bad attitudes. If the government told 16-year-olds that they had to log 200 hours of drive time before they could get their licenses, they’d all drive 200 hours because it’s important to them. If in order to go to the prom, they had to wear a tie or a dress, they’d wear a tie or a dress. If the sports coach said that everyone had to wear warm-up jerseys for pre-game warm-ups, they’d all wear the jerseys whether they wanted to or not. If a parent said to a child, “You can’t have dessert until you eat your vegetables,” the child would eat his vegetables. If a publisher said, “I’ll only publish this book if you cut 30,000 words from it,” the writer would swallow his or her pride and find 30,000 superfluous words to cut. If the county sent a letter requiring a citizen to show up for jury duty, the person would make arrangements to be there.

I could think of 100,000 examples of how life is. Do what your boss says. Play by the rules. Obey your parents. Abide by the country’s laws. We are always being told what to do. You know, I hate paying my property taxes, but I kind of like my house and where I live, so I pay them. I don’t like getting penalized when I make late loan payments, so I make them before someone else’s arbitrary cut-off date. I don’t like that I can’t drive 80 plus on the expressway. It would save time to drive over 80, wouldn’t it? I wish I didn’t have to be a certain age to get a full retirement or draw social security. I don’t like it when my exit is closed and I have to make a detour. I truly wish my grass didn’t grow continuously so I have to keep cutting it. But life is what it is, so I do life. It doesn’t matter if I like it, if it’s fair, or if it’s stupid. It doesn’t matter if it seems like a waste of time, if I think the person who told me to do it is an idiot, or if it’s not what I want to do. My life is filled with me being expected to do things I don’t like or want to do.

There are some rewarding things about my job and some things that are a pain in my behind, but it’s my job to do them all. And students…it’s your job to take the standardized test whether you like it or not. Which leads me to the real reason I’m ranting. I’ve established life is packed full of inconveniences and things we don’t like or don’t want to do. I’ve established that those things don’t matter too awfully much. We just do them. And I’ve established that our attitudes need to be better. So here I am with this incredibly profound statement. Since you have to take the test, you should do your best! We’re taking time in our classrooms to give the kids a little insight into what to expect from this brand new M-STEP test, so shouldn’t they be listening? Shouldn’t they be practicing? Shouldn’t they be planning on doing A, B, and C so they do their very best? Here’s the big question. Shouldn’t they care? If my coach told me I had one minute to make as many layups as I could, I’d try to make them all. If I knew I was playing a solo at a recital, I’d practice. And while I was playing, I’d try not to make a mistake. If I had a part in a play, I’d learn my lines so I could be proud of my performance. If I was white-water rafting and heading to a class five rapid and my guide told me to paddle as hard as I could or I might die, I’d paddle exactly like I didn’t want to die. If I had a special date, I’d plan and prepare so I’d make a good impression. If I was taking an on-line IQ test, I’d darn well try to get every single one right because I want to know how smart I am. You see, I’d do my best. I’d pay attention to M-STEP hints. I’d do the practices. I’d go to bed early and eat breakfast and bring a bottle of water on test day. I’d read the wordy directions. If it said to write and give evidence, I’d give three or four pieces instead of one or two. If my teacher showed me what the directions are going to be like or introduced me to the on-line tools, I’d pay attention and practice them with the class.

And when the test day came, I’d try to get them all right. All of them. Every one of them. I’d care. It wouldn’t matter how I felt about the thing. It’s the test. It’s how the state of Michigan says I’m going to be evaluated. It’s how my teachers are being evaluated. It’s how my school district is being evaluated. It doesn’t matter if I like it, agree with it, want to do it, or think it’s fair. It’s the evaluation I’ve been told to take, so I’ll take it, and I’ll do my best. I’m so sick of the whining and complaints. I’m tired of the apathy and laziness. I’m exhausted trying to help so many students who don’t care. People need to care. People need to do their best. People need to conform to the test like they conform to nearly everything else in their lives and suck it up and do the best they can. I don’t like being told what to do any more than the next person, and I have opinions just like the next guy. But I have a philosophy that says when I’m put to the test, I try to do my very best.

All students need to care. The test is coming whether they like it or not. It evaluates them. They shouldn’t want to find out they’re not proficient. They shouldn’t want a bad score in their student file if they do poorly. They shouldn’t want to let their parents—or themselves—down. We all know there are flaws in the system. There will almost certainly be flaws in this new test. Philosophically, and in any and every other way, you may hate standardized testing and M-STEP. But so what? Care anyway about how you do. Do your best anyway. Prepare…take it seriously…listen…practice…follow the directions. Go above and beyond. Do the best you can because this is exactly how life is. We do what we’re told sometimes even when we don’t like it or when we think it’s stupid. It doesn’t matter when it comes to this test. We do what we have to because that is exactly how life always is.  

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Fun with Synonyms (A True Story)

In honor of the fact that it snowed again in Michigan this morning, I decided to extract an archived blog post from two winters ago (winter, by the way, sort of ends in Michigan, and there are some distinguishing characteristics of other seasons). I was observing my classroom (a.k.a. I was taking attendance and entering make-up work), and my studious pupils were absorbed in paragraph writing when—with no forewarning whatsoever—an eighth grader in the front seat of the second row vomited all over my floor. Luckily, no one was sitting beside him when he splattered the runny, liquidy mess. After hurling the revolting chowder, he never raised his head an inch. I wondered if he was too embarrassed to look up, but what I soon realized was he was too sick. Again, without any warning, he started retching, only this time I saw it happen. Out of his mouth jetted a wide stream of slimy sickness. What was on the floor quadrupled in size—at least. The hoven stream of spew was as round as his mouth and came shooting out of his throat like it was shot from a fire hose. The liquescent flow upchucked for a good seven seconds straight. The rancid, putrid gag sprayed and splashed into a pool the size of a bathtub.  Students, to my amazement, scattered politely. Surprisingly, not a single one of them heaved his or her own breakfast contents. Finally, the boy, about eight pounds lighter, stumbled awkwardly out of the room (I wondered why he hadn’t thought of it before), banging into one desk and bouncing off one wall before escaping through the doorway, leaving me and his classmates with a puddle of bile large enough to drown in. Four steps from the door, we all heard round three, the jet-spray of fluid grossness splashing in the hallway.

The rank, foul smell accosted us all at once. Two windows flew open, and chilling, sub-freezing, sweet February Michigan air satiated my classroom. Everyone within fifteen feet of the stench acquired a new territory to inhabit. I calmly phoned the main office and said something like, “There’s a puddle of puke on my floor of enormous proportions. I need some help.” I wasn’t exaggerating. If there wasn’t a gallon of stomach cesspool reeking in my room…well, then there were two gallons—more than should have sensibly fit in his stomach.  There was a stagnant, fetid  lake on my floor.

As we waited for merciful assistance, sweatshirts stretched over noses and frosty arms embraced tightly to bodies. One girl asked what was taking so long. I said, “Our custodian isn’t a teleporter. It’ll take a few minutes to get here.” Needless to say, I focused my astonishing teacher attributes to the problem at hand. My goal wasn’t to wish the room rid of the squalid pond of putrescence; it was to get my shivering, nauseated students to finish that all-important paragraph. Girls were sticking aromatic chapsticks nearly up their noses and everyone else’s arms and faces had disappeared into loose garments. Three boys asked for permission to step into the hall, which I granted on one condition—that they take their work with them to complete, but as soon as they exited to the hallway, they stepped back in. It smelled worse out there, but at least the boy wasn’t lying dead in front of the restroom, ridded of half his body weight.

Probably eight full minutes after my emergency phone call, who do you think arrived in my room? No, it wasn’t the custodian. He was away at lunch. It was the principal’s secretary with a broom and one of those buckets of chemically treated sawdust to soak up the lagoon on my floor. I tried to find the actual name for the stuff on the internet and the best options I found were “barfbits…chunderchow…[and] spewsoaker.” If you want to visualize the bucket she was carrying, picture a three-year-old’s sand pail, and then divide it by about three. It held roughly enough spewsoaker (that’s the name I like best), to cover approximately two-square feet of the repulsive, malodorous loch on my floor. It was the secretary that suggested I escort my class to the Community Room for the remainder of the hour. Students hastily flooded out the door (pardon my pun) and gratefully reassembled in the refrigerated meeting room. Apparently, someone had opened a window in the room and the glacial Michigan air had managed to freeze it in its exposed position.

Students gathered at tables, unloading their materials, not even complaining that their newest classroom temperature was fixed at an Antarctical (I made that word up) freezessence (I made that word up too). At least they couldn’t smell that horrific barf or see that unsanitary tarn that was infesting my classroom. We got right to work. Students put pen and pencil to paper and teacher paraded around the room, my breath escaping in white clouds of glorious freedom from nasal agony. Before the bell rang to end the class, I had the assignments in my stiff, frozen fingers, and I sent my students happily on their way.

Why do I tell this story—with only the slightest of exaggeration? Because writing about gross things is amazingly entertaining and fun. And choosing awesome synonyms to describe the dreadful experience was more enjoyable yet. I did it because I had fun writing it, describing it, and choosing appropriate words for it. I’ve learned the written word can be engaging, compelling, charming, amusing, gripping, convincing, captivating, enchanting, hilarious, mesmerizing, riveting, entrancing (I’m giving my thesaurus a workout), and sickening (like this passage was). But most of all, it can be wonderfully liberating. I can say things I’ve never said before. And whether I exaggerate a touch or tell it like it really is, I get to be the one to say it, knowing that my reader gets to be the one who enjoys it (or feels queasy). I’ll never forget what happened in my classroom that Friday, but now, neither will you. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Writing Is Fun

Is writing fun? I have a whole bunch of students in school who don’t think so. Sometimes I even read comments by authors that make me think they aren’t having much fun either. But this blog is about reasons why I think writing is fun for me. Maybe some of it will ring true to my fellow writers as well.

1)      I get to use my imagination. This one is so obvious that I wrote it first. I can go places, be people, and do things I can’t in real life. I can get in a female character’s mind and understand her. How awesome is that? I can do miraculous things. I can say things I’d never get away with…and be as sarcastic as I want. I get to decide what happens. I get to have my own way (and still stay married). Would I like to build a world? Perform a miracle? Have a super power? Drive a great car? Live in a different era? I could live out a fantasy if I wanted, and I could find a solution to a problem. I could go on and on, and I get to do those things and more with my imagination. It makes writing fun.

2)      I get to learn things. There are some writers producing works in very popular genres who actually write books without having to do research to learn about things related to their plot. I think it would take some of the fun out of writing if I didn’t have to learn so much to make my stories click. I’ve learned about brains and trains, the paranormal and parapsychology, history and time travel, geography and theology, animals and angels, law and medicine. I’m an English teacher, for heaven sakes, and I learn about grammar every time I write. I’ve written five books and each process has been different. I learn about writing every time I write. And what can I say about all that learning? It’s been exciting…interesting…inspiring…and yes, sometimes even enjoyable.

3)      It’s rewarding work. When I coached and my team won or a player improved or a parent thanked me, it was well worth the effort. When I teach and get a note from a kid or I learn that a parent moved his or her child into my class or a student makes me laugh, it’s well worth the effort. I get some of those same rewards as an author. There are lots of feel good moments, making the work worthwhile. But the most rewarding thing about writing (besides a large royalty check) is finishing a book—the satisfaction of accomplishment. There’s a huge reward that comes with the achievement. And if it sells and readers give positive feedback, it’s even better. Nothing that’s worthwhile comes easy. And with work comes sweat and occasional disappointment and failure. To finish a book, however, makes it all worthwhile, and that’s pleasurable.

4)      I get to share myself with others. Some people go through life without ever opening up. Believe me, writing opens writers up. Readers may not know they’re seeing me when they read, but incorporated into my stories are my experiences, passions, beliefs, anxieties, friends, failures, and sense of humor. You don’t know if that character is me or not or if that stupid thing he did is something stupid I did too (it probably is) or if that story that’s told is legit or greatly enhanced or if movies, books, authors, sports teams, foods, or songs I mention are because I happen to like them. You don’t know that for sure, but I do, and it’s exciting to be immortalized inside a book. Only authors can do that.

5)      It’s cool to hide things in my books. There’s a small animal in each of my books. There’s a mini-grammar lesson in each book. There’s a reference to at least one favorite author or book character in each book. There’s at least one character in each book from pop culture whose name is made fun of and another or two whose name is simply…well, one that would make the nurses at the hospital shake their heads when the child was named. It’s entertaining being creative, knowing I put things in my books that are uniquely me.

6)      I’ve written things that have made me cry. I’ve written things that’ve made me laugh. I’ve written things that have caused me to send it to friends or read to my family because I’m so happy about it. There are times when I’m stuck and in the middle of the most obscure activity, the solution pops into my head, and I can’t wait to get back to work. The emotions involved in a writer’s work can be a roller coaster, but who doesn’t like a roller coaster? Roller coasters are great, aren’t they? Writing gives me experiences that I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget waking up in the middle of the night and scrawling the ending to my first novel on a pad of paper in the dark. I’ll never forget the exact moment I solved the mysteries to my second and third novels. I cried at some point in the writing of four of the five books I’ve penned. Writing is gratifying.

7)      Finally, I’ve come full circle, and though this is similar to #1 above, writing is a pleasurable way to escape. Life’s problems can disappear for a while when I write. Stress for work or money problems or stupid decisions I’ve made can be forgotten temporarily. Who needs yoga? When I write, I can get alone, and not be alone because my characters are real to me. I can get the focus off my issues and deal with theirs. I can get away from my world and get mixed up somewhere else in theirs. I can get away from people that get me down. And characters I don’t like or who deserve karma or justice, I can kill them or ruin them (and not be a psychopath) or put them in jail or at least put them in their place. For sure, it’s never boring.

I started by asking the question, “Is writing fun?” I suppose that’s an opinion question, but for a real writer, maybe it’s a rhetorical one instead. Of course it’s fun. I (we) get to use my (our) imaginations, we get to learn things, we find it rewarding, we share ourselves, we can do unique things, we get to feel things, and we get to escape. Those are all great reasons to turn a hobby or a talent into a passion. Give it a try sometime and experience the fun. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014


In my second novel, Skeleton Key, the murder mystery revolved around a train wreck, a wreck where something went wrong with the brakes. I had a beta reader look over my manuscript and at one point, she wrote, “I think you spelled brakes wrong.” I did. There are two spellings with the same pronunciation, which I always thought was the definition of a homonym. I guess they’re also often called homophones. I did a search for “breaks” (the misspelling), and I found that I misspelled it seven times. The other thirty or so, I got right. Regardless, since I started The Red Pen, I’ve done numerous spelling posts. This one about homophones (I plan to stubbornly call them stupid spelling errors) was well over a year in the making as I looked for homonym/homophone/stupid spelling errors on the Internet and with my students at school. The list I made is incredible—funny but kind of sad at the same time. These are the most interesting of the stupid spelling errors.

1. I showered and shampooed my hare. (This was such a good idea, I showered and shampooed my cat.)
2. The book had a vampire and a wearwolf. (I’ve made my list and I’ve determined for myself that I shall never wear clothing that requires batteries, wear Crocs, wear Dickies, or wear wolves.)
3. I predict he’ll be the next American Idle. (Is this a thing to strive for? I have a whole slew of idle Americans in my English classes.)
4. No parking. Violators will be toad. (That’s a harsh punishment.)

5. Isn’t that a picture of Noah’s arc? (Well, God did provide a rainbow, so it’s possible.)
6. He was a pathetic heroine addict. (I resent the pathetic tag because I’ve been hooked on good female characters before as well. I think I’m a Jennifer Lawrence heroine addict, for instance.)
7. It was wrapped around his waste. (Most likely, this would be a garbage bag.)
8. The man had a balled head. (I hope it’s not football shaped.)

9. We had to shoe him from the shop. (This one reminds me of my student who wrote, “It’s nice to meat you.” I pictured him happily hitting someone with a pork chop—which is only slightly worse than whacking the guy with a sneaker.)
10. The Loan Ranger rides again. (Passing out money to
      needy criminals, no doubt.)
11. Mix it with flower. (This is how it’s done.)

12. I was mesmerized by her bear shoulders. (People have
      eagle beaks, hawk eyes, and knees like a camel, so why
      not bear shoulders?)
13. He’s a cereal killer. (Aren’t we all? Breakfast is the most
      important meal of the day.)
14. The earthquake berried the family. (It was at a Smucker’s
      manufacturing plant.)
15. There’s a leek in the boat!  (This doesn’t really sound like
      much of an emergency to me.)

16. He walks with a smooth gate. (It’s cumbersome and
      attracts a lot of attention, but it’s smooth.)
17. She has a fowl disposition. (As evidenced by how she flies
      off the handle and posts angry tweets.)
18. I disgust it with my wife. (No comment.)
19. Grab a coat. It’s chili outside. (Shouldn’t they be grabbing
      bowls and spoons?)
20. He’s the air to the throne. (Something like this, I assume.)

I had a list of probably 35 stupid spelling homophones collected, but by now, you get the point. This is the type of thing I deal with in class with my students and on the internet with careless adults. It’s funny though—funny as in curious. Almost every stupid spelling error I wrote above is underlined in my text—a sure sign to the writer that a stupid spelling error has been made. The spell check feature is pretty handy for a writer. And if a writer isn’t sure about a homonym/homophone and is wary of making a stupid spelling error, all he or she has to do is go to Google and type “bear or bare”  or “gait or gate,” for instance, and incredibly, there is an answer that’s handy within a portion of a second.

In Bulletproof in an early scene, a drunk bar patron announces to a man from whom he’d just won a bet that he needed “to take a leek.” My aunt sent me a giggling note on Facebook saying, “That’s a vegetable, Jeff.” We all make mistakes, but that doesn’t change the fact that each and every one of them is a stupid spelling error. Its time that defenders of there language stood up and said allowed, “Get you’re homophones write!” (Otherwise, it’ll look like five more stupid spelling errors.) Class dismissed. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

No Pun Intended


      Pet peeves are common. When I stop to think of it, I have a hyperbolic number of them—somewhere close to a zillion. One of them (or maybe it’s two) have to do with the utterance of “pun intended” and “no pun intended.” I can’t think of two phrases more unnecessarily spoken. 
      Here is the definition of a pun: "A pun, or paronomasia, is a form of word play that deliberately exploits ambiguity between similar-sounding words for humorous or rhetorical effect." A pun is basically a play on words, like in the joke, "Where do cows go on a Saturday night? The moooovies." Moooovies is a pun. I have to say, even those of us who only understand about 60% of the words in the definition above get a pun when we hear one, yet some word masters are intent on telling us they made a pun…just in case we missed it, so let me start with the egotistical “pun intended.”
      This phrase is said by a person who is so brilliant and witty that they’re fairly bursting with personal pride. People who finish their puns with the phrase “pun intended” are clearly on a different intellectual level than the rest of us dimwits. I mean, we’re so intellectually challenged that we have to be reminded by the genius punster. 
      “Uh, hey, all you stupid people. I have a categorically witty linguistic locution I’m about to execute on your unintelligent ears. It goes like this. ‘I went to a seafood disco last week... and pulled a mussel.’ Hahahahahahaha! Oh, by the way, pun intended.”
      And then inane people like me will clearly feel the need to kneel, stunned, in genuflective posture in reverence to the supreme intellectual being in our presence, contemplating the hilarious pun that we just missed. “Let’s see. Is it a pun to have seafood and disco in the same sentence? No…I think not. Are his muscles weak? Could be. Did he mean ‘see’food because there’s no such thing as a seafood disco is there? Wait…after further review, I think a mussel is a kind of seafood…and I believe a disco dancer could pull a muscle, hence there’s a pun. I’m certainly indebted to the word scientist for pointing out a pun I would have never recognized on my own.” 
      Like me, I’m sure you appreciate jesters wisecracking in your presence and then reminding you that their witticisms are too clever for you and any of your other companions to get. “Did you hear about the man who stole a calendar? He got 12 months.” Chortle. “Pun intended.”
      At which point all of your daft colleagues respond incredulously.
      “Entertainer man, you’re not as funny as you think. Maybe you should take a day off.”
      “Yeah, that joke is really dated.”
      “Get with the times.” 
      “That joke was week.”
      You see, anyone who has to say “pun intended” must think that they’ve achieved an intellectual superiority that the common man is unable to attain. And since puns are way up on the IQ humor pyramid (practically at the peak, I assume), they have to inform us when they’ve dropped a quip right in our laps. 
      Maybe, however, the “pun intended” people are simply so desperate for a laugh at their lame attempt at humor, they say the irritating phrase as a clue that if we feel sorry enough for them, we’ll give a polite giggle or groan or eye roll. It’s the same as saying, “Friends who feel sorry for me, I made a joke. Will you please laugh?" They should just say, “Ha ha, you get it right? I made an ill-informed attempt to be funny, and it’s falling as flat as an Iowa landscape. If you would just laugh, I won’t feel quite so humiliated.”

      Then, there are those who say, “No pun intended.” Why in the world do they do that? Let me start with writers. A writer writes a pun…unintentionally. He or she recognizes that there’s a pun.
      “I was in the Piggly Wiggly with my darling daughter, wandering aimlessly, looking for leeks. In aisle three, a one-armed man fumbled a can of asparagus which loudly clattered to the floor. My little princess charged to the rescue. ‘Can I give you a hand?’ she asked.”
      What if once the above writer completed the scene, he/she noticed that “hand” was a pun? Is there any logical reason for the writer to insert “Oh, gosh, I didn’t intend to write a pun there”? If the writer doesn’t intend a pun, he or she could revise and say something like, “Let me help you.” Or the writer could leave it and say to him or herself, I didn’t intend to write a pun, but low and behold, I did it anyway. I think I’ll leave it. I mean, I don’t care if he didn’t intend it. I’ve never once in my entire life read a play on words and stopped myself so I could speculate. I doubt seriously that the author made that pun on purpose, but I wish he would have told me by saying something clever like “no pun intended” so I could know and read on in peace. Let me say this loud and clear. If a writer writes a pun which wasn’t intended and said writer feels the need to tell me the pun was not intended, then the writer should revise the sentence and eliminate the play on words. 
      There is also the situation, reading and speaking alike, where the person obviously made an intentional pun. So why on God’s green earth do they say “No pun intended”?
      “Hey, Jeff, I have a story to tell you, set during the Cold War. Bob, from America, was arguing with Rudolf from Soviet Russia. They argued about politics, religion, their presidents—even about the weather. One night Rudolf said it was raining outside, but Bob would not agree. He said it was sleeting. So they argued all night: Rain! Sleet! Rain! Sleet! The argument continued until Bob's wife pulled him aside and said: ‘Sweetheart, you're wrong. It is raining. And this time the Russian is right, because…Rudolf the Red knows rain, dear.’ No pun intended."
      Seriously? The whole purpose of the joke was to tell a pun.
      “Two peanuts walk into a bar, and one was a salted. No pun intended.”
      Of course. Let me ponder your inane statement a moment. Are you certain two peanuts were walking? And of the two walking peanuts, who happened to walk into a drinking establishment (because peanuts get thirsty too), you happened to notice that one was a salted peanut and one wasn’t. That “a salted” play on words thing that you said at the end of your interesting, true story was totally unintentional? Thanks for clearing that up. 
      I saw some dude on Facebook make a post. He said, and I quote, “Frankly, I don’t like hot dogs. No pun intended.” I know the “pun intended” guy from the beginning of this blog thinks he’s the only one with brains, but the “Frankly” guy is even more condescending. Am I to be so naively stupid, that I should accept he said “Frankly” by mistake, noticed it, kept it in his post, and then took the time to tell me he didn’t intend to write it? “There’s a pun in my post, people (if you look closely, you’ll discover it too), but I didn’t put it there on purpose and I want you to know I’m so clever, sometimes I write in puns unintentionally. It’s crazy but true.”
      Give me a break. Pun intended and No pun intended are two of the dumbest things people can say, and yes, they are pet peeves of mine. Punners, when you make a play on words, let us groan at it of our own free will, and if you do it unintentionally, so be it.
      There was a person who sent twenty different puns to his friends with the hope that at least half of the plays on words would make them laugh. No pun in ten did.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pet Peeves

I’m not a bitter person, and I’m actually pretty cool. Not in the Happy Days Fonzie kind of way, but in the nothing really bothers me much kind of way. Yet, lately I’ve been thinking of some of my pet peeves. Again, the thoughts I was having weren’t raising my blood pressure any. Instead, they were making me want to share, just to see who agrees with me. Seriously. Who agrees with me on some of these? I’d like to know. So, here is a list of pet peeves that are worth mentioning—in no particular order.

1.       It bothers me when my family puts dirty dishes in the sink “to soak.” How about rinsing off your dishes before the leftovers harden on your plate and putting the dishes in the dishwasher so when I rinse things off, the sink doesn’t fill with disgusting water that I have to put my hand in so it’ll run down the drain like it’s supposed to?
2.       It bothers me when my next door neighbor mows his yard and mows about 20 feet into my yard. I honestly think he somehow thinks he’s doing me a favor, but he’s not. Who wants to look out his or her window and see a yard that’s 20% mowed and 80% unmowed? Is he trying to get me to mow too? Why? I keep my yard looking nice. Is he trying to make it look like he has a great big yard and I have a little itty bitty one? I wish he’d stop.
3.       It bugs me that ropes, cords, strings, jewelry, or any other stringy-shaped articles are alive and tie themselves in knots of their own volition. How can I untangle my extension cord, pump up my car tires, and throw my straightened cord next to the wall on my garage floor and then have it tangled in a jumbled mess the next time I pick it up? Why are my earphones for my iPod always in a knot, no matter how neatly I place them in my drawer? I have a whole blog about this topic it’s so frustrating.

4.       Driving behind someone who is going well below the speed limit bugs me—almost as much as when someone pulls out in front of me and then immediately puts on a turn signal and brakes, so I have to wait for him to turn.
5.       People who use the F-word numerous times in the same sentence. Now, I can deal with swearing. I read books and watch movies and live life out in public, but am I to be impressed when the speaker manages to use the F-word as a noun, verb, adverb, and adjective in the same sentence? I want to say, “Excuse me, there’s a book full of synonyms for your favorite word,” and then I want to present said person with the gift of a thesaurus.
6.       Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton bug me. Those two men have propagated far more racism than they’ve alleviated.
7.       People who can’t do simple math bug me. For instance, I’ll give back a paper in class that says 8/10. Kids ask me what grade that is. Then they’ll say, “I had a zero for this assignment. Will this improve my grade?” I’m always tempted to say “No, 8 out of 10 is a negative number and your grade is worse now.” I made a $9.99 purchase this summer. The cash register was down, so the cashier had to figure the purchase by hand—using a calculator, of course. Michigan sales tax is 6%, so the tax is easy (60 cents). She wrote 9.99 down on paper, used the calculator to figure the tax at 60 cents and then wrote that under 9.99. Then she used the calculator to add the two numbers together. It told her 10.59. I waited patiently for this process, and then gave her $11.00. She got all flustered so I told her that my change was 41 cents. She said, “I know.” She then wrote 11.00 on her paper and put 10.59 under it, and she proceeded to punch the numbers into the calculator twice (I assume she was checking her answer out of amazement that I knew it before she did) and wrote .41 under the number—confirming what she claimed she already knew. Now the problem was adding the coins together. She took a quarter from the drawer, hesitated, and then put it back and took out four dimes and a penny. That was easier. The transaction took over five minutes.
8.       I get a little nutty when people borrow my paperback books and return them with the binding all cracked and creased. Am I the only one who believes things should be returned in as good of condition as when they were borrowed? Books are not supposed to look like this when they’re returned.

9.       Shouldn’t people say thank you when I hold a door for them or shouldn’t they wave when I let their car in front of me in traffic? Common politeness is gradually disappearing.
10.   When your boss tells you that he/she has had “a couple” of complaints or “several” complaints, we all know that he or she got one, right? So in my case, one parent complained about something and 159 did not. So why must I change what I’m doing when 99.375% of my students’ parents are not complaining. (Yes, I used a calculator for that one).  
11.   Am I the only consumer that is irritated that every gas station in the county is selling gasoline for the same exact price?

12.   Why do half-gallons of ice cream now come in containers far smaller than a half-gallon? Do the packagers and manufacturers think I’m too dumb to notice?
13.   Daylight savings time. Need I say more? If I took a board and sawed off a foot from the top and attached it to the bottom, it would not be longer. I have a blog post about my atomic clock that will not reset for the new season. Uh, yes, six months of the year, my clock is wrong and there’s nothing I can do about it besides smash it to smithereens, which I’ve considered. I have a separate blog about this issue as well.
14.   People who call their newborn child “Baby” confuse me. Is this a new fad or does it just happen in Central Michigan? “It’s time to take Baby home…We can’t make it. Baby isn’t feeling well…Baby is sleeping six hours now.” Could it be “the” baby? Does Baby actually have a name?
15.   I have to admit I’m not a drinker, so what I’m about to say might be totally ridiculous, but why, when people have a drink and a camera is pointed at them, do they have to raise their drink in the air to show it off? I don’t do that with a can of Mountain Dew. Coffee drinkers don’t do that. Can you see me holding up my glass of milk at breakfast?
16.   Packaging sometimes is a pet peeve. Does anyone else hate that plastic sealed packaging that electronics comes in? Why should I need a knife, scissors, and a trip to emergency to get into a package? 
17.   Okay, I’ve waited long enough to admit this. I hate when people don’t know the difference between it’s and its; there, their, and they’re; are and our; your and you’re; who’s and whose; and to and too (among others). Sorry…I had to say it. But this picture makes me laugh. 

18.   Since I’m on the topic, when people say things like “I seen that movie” or “It don’t matter,” I cringe. Sorry, again, but I’m an English teacher. Should I include double negatives?
19.   I roll my eyes when golfing with people who take three or four foot “gimmees” on the putting green and then brag about their scores at the end of the round.
20.   It’s mind-boggling when people accuse someone else of being “selfish” simply because they didn’t get what they wanted.

As I’ve written this blog, I’ve come to realize I could go on and on and on. Maybe there’ll be another post in the future, but what are some of your pet peeves? I’d love to hear them. And if your pet peeve is an author pushing his/her books, let me just drive you crazy because mine are for sale at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  and 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Word for the Year

The new school year started with a day of teacher in-service. A guest motivational speaker included in his message the concept of choosing a specific “word for the year.” His thinking was simple enough. If we could choose a word that represents an area of our life that we would like to improve, and if we focused on that word on a daily basis, the word would become part of our lives. It would seep into our existence and change us. He challenged us to choose a word and commit to allowing it to impact our lives. As a teacher, words like patience, relationships, serve, or optimism might have been good words for me, for instance.

The language arts department at my school, of which I’m a member, decided to challenge our students to choose a word for the year, and the activity worked well. I’ve decided to challenge you too. Let me give you some examples first. Maybe your word could be goal or dream. Are you good at setting goals and plotting out a plan for success? Is there something you’d like to accomplish, but you just can’t seem to push yourself to do it? Maybe if you chose goal or dream as your word and meditated on it each day, you’d be able to accomplish something meaningful in your life.

Maybe your word could be moment. Do you find it difficult to not dwell on the past or worry about the future? Is it possible that if you try to focus on the moment—the only time you actually have some control over—that you might be more productive, happier, more content, or healthier?

Maybe your word could be grow. Maybe you could strive daily to learn from your experiences. Maybe you could try to see the good in things or try to use your circumstances as an opportunity to help others. We should learn from our mistakes and see the good that may come from our trials. Maybe if we looked at things as life lessons, we could be more content with our lives.

Maybe your word could be give or help. How much better would the world be if we were able to put ourselves second and think about others first? What if we decided to be a servant and actually look for opportunities to give of ourselves—our time…our resources…our love? Isn’t it possible that we could have an impact on others? Isn’t it possible that our impact on others would make our own lives more fulfilling?

Maybe your word could be positive or optimistic. What a change this word could make. If we could show more optimism, I think we’d have less stress in our lives. I think we’d be more at peace, and we’d sleep better at night. I think we’d find good things to cheer us and say good things to cheer others. I think we’d like more people and be better liked. We’d be a better friend, we’d feel better, and getting up in the morning would be easier. We’d react better to the troubles in our lives and we’d be happier.

What if our word was smile? Do you think that maybe we’d get more smiles in return? Do you think that maybe we’d be more relaxed, more joyful, and more likable? Do you think we’d make better first impressions and be better counselors? Do you think we might notice the beauty in things and see the good in others if we smiled more?

Maybe your word, like mine, could be prayer. I considered so many words, but in the end, I realized that for this year I might be able to accomplish more if I just took a minute to settle myself and consider what is important. I can pray for help to be more joyful and smile more. I can pray to be more optimistic and less stressed. I can pray for opportunities to help and serve others. I can pray to grow from my experiences and learn from them and be more content. I can pray to live in the moment and stop rehashing the past or worrying about the future. I can pray for help in achieving certain goals or accomplishing my dreams. I figured that maybe if I took a moment to stop myself each morning, I might have more peace and joy and love in my life. I might remember to be thankful for all the blessings I have, and I might be able to step out of my own selfish world and consider how as a teacher, I can have a positive impact on the lives of other people.

So what will be your word for the year? What do you need to do better? How can you improve yourself and have a better year? I challenge you to pick a word for the year and consider it daily. Take note of the changes, benefits, and impact the word is having on your life. I think it’s a challenge worth taking. Maybe you can share your word as a comment…and maybe you can share your word and a similar challenge to others in your life. You know, everyone wants to change…just very few are willing to take the steps necessary to actually create the change. That is my challenge to you. Pick a word, and tomorrow, begin making the changes.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

How Authors Can Make More Money

As an author, do you purchase copies of your own books to sell in public? You should. When I sold a paperback copy of one of my novels on Amazon, I received slightly more than a dollar in royalties once I shared with my publisher...or less than three dollars now that I’m on my own (self-published). I got 84 cents for an ebook when sharing with my publisher, and depending on the price I list it for now, I get from 35 cents to about two dollars per book on my own.  I sell my own books in public for $10.00, which is two or three dollars off the listed Amazon price, and I make over $5.00 a book. I know there are starving artists out there who don’t think they can afford to buy copies of their books to sell, but I don’t think you can afford not to—because they’re easy to sell. That’s what you’re worried about, isn’t it? That you’ll have boxes of unsold books stored away, and instead of making money from your books, you’ll be losing it instead. If that’s how you’re feeling, then you don’t have a plan. Before I give you some ideas, do you realize that if you bought 20 books to sell, costing approximately $100.00, you could sell them for $200.00 at a reasonable price of $10.00 per book? Then you could buy 20 more books and never have to worry about losing money again.  Once you realize how easy it is to sell them, you can buy larger quantities and enjoy the profits.

So how do you sell them? Here are some suggestions.

1.       Call local libraries and ask if they have any events. These are usually free, and though I haven’t had large numbers of sales while selling at these events (which aren’t generally attended well), I’ve heard they’ve worked better for other people…and maybe the library will purchase your book.

2.       Call local bookstores and see if they will let you set up shop. Sometimes there are town festivals or art walks or other such events running, and the bookstore will invite you in to sell. Possibly, the owner will have you in just to try to drum up more customers. They will usually advertise your appearance. They may take a couple of books on consignment and sell them in the store. These opportunities are also usually free.

3.       Check the internet for author expos. There are readers who have a passion for exposing others to books. Colleges have author expos, sometimes libraries do, some art guilds do, and sometimes other organizations such as readers’ coalitions organize them. These are generally quite inexpensive to attend and may also be free.

4.       Get the word out that you’re looking for book clubs or writers’ groups. Volunteer to make an appearance and speak. Some groups pay to have speakers, and some just provide lunch or snacks and drinks. I’ve spoken to several groups that have purchased books at the end. Sales at my speaking events have been very good, and the more people, obviously, the better.

5.       Town festivals. Nearly all small towns and all larger towns have downtown events. People are wandering everywhere. They may not be looking for books, but if you’re willing to strike up a conversation, you’d be surprised at how many readers there are that are impressed to meet an actual author. And other kind-hearted people simply like to support local authors. These events are also generally quite inexpensive to sell at.

6.       Look up farmer’s markets and flea markets. If they aren’t advertised on line, try the local Chamber of Commerce or the City Hall for information. For somewhere between five and twenty dollars, in my experience, I set up a booth or a table under a canopy and sell a lot of books. People come to markets with cash in hand, fully expecting to spend money. Having an author in attendance is a curiosity. At a market, people are friendly. They stop and chat. They like a free piece of candy or a bookmark, and they’re all curious about the guy or gal that isn’t selling produce. If the weather cooperates, I’ve had lots of luck at the farm markets. I also tend to buy a lot of fresh veggies, so be prepared to spend some of your profits. Hey, it’s for your own health. The only flea market I sold at went pretty well; plus I learned that next time I’ll bring other things to sell too, since it turned out to be basically a huge garage sale. Maybe there’s a good flea market near you.

7.       Craft shows have been very good to me. Now we’re getting to the especially good events. These, in my experience, can be very inexpensive (10 to 20 dollars) or they can be expensive (like 75 to 150 dollars). I’ve sold over 50 books at craft shows numerous times. They are usually indoors, so weather isn’t a concern, and sharing a table is always a possibility. Do you know another author to split the fee with, or a crafter that will share his or her table? That’s a way to reduce the cost. Shoppers come with money to spend, and they generally spend it. Remember, lots of people love books. Plus I have an easier time not spending my profits on crafts than not buying those delicious fresh vegetables.

8.       Art in the park events are easy to find on line, and there are generally very few authors at those events, so often, they’re very profitable. They can also be expensive. I prefer sharing a booth with one of two author friends that I’ve made. Both Stacey Rourke and Julie Cassar (check out their books because they sell like hotcakes) are very outgoing and personable, and our books are different enough that we don’t invade on each other’s audiences, but when a few people stop, crowds begin to gather. Literature is art. Once shoppers realize this obvious truth, they also realize that your art is less expensive than everyone else’s. At least that’s my theory on why I’ve been so successful at these events. That and my smile and friendly personality. 

I’ve come back from events and my wife will ask me how many books I sold. I’ll sigh sometimes and say, “Only fifteen” or I’ll say, “I sold twenty-eight, but I sold thirty-five last year at the same event.” She’ll say, “How many did you sell on line today?” And my spirits will brighten. Interacting with people, hearing words of encouragement, creating smiles, making connections and getting invitations to other events—these are things that happen out in public, and I believe more authors need to take the initiative to step out and market their books in a way that happens to be fun and also works. I encourage all indie authors to locate some events and make some phone calls. Get your book into the hands of some readers. You’ll wonder why you weren’t doing it before.

Jeff LaFerney is the author of Loving the Rain, Skeleton Key, Bulletproof, and Jumper  

Friday, July 18, 2014

Up and Down

I’m an English teacher and an author, and I sometimes wonder how anyone can learn English as a second language. Throwing out the languages that require us to learn a different alphabet, is there a more difficult language than English? Take our idioms, for instance—of which there are too many to count. At the drop of a hat? Beat around the bush? Barking up the wrong tree? A chip on your shoulder? Costs an arm and a leg? Can’t cut the mustard? Hit the hay? Jump on the bandwagon? Let the cat out of the bag? Off your rocker? On the ball? Piece of cake? Put all your eggs in one basket? Steal your thunder? Straight from the horse’s mouth? Take it with a grain of salt? The whole nine yards?

But those are idioms, which are figures of speech. We know they mean something figurative, so inherently we understand there is more to the phrase than the literal meanings to the words. But how does a new English speaker discern what the words up and down could possibly mean? I looked up the words (though I didn’t bother to write down the definitions). Down had seven adverb definitions while up had ten. I don’t think it’s enough, personally.

In class, sometimes I hear myself say, “Quiet down and listen up.” I give directions and the kids are mixed up. On multiple choice questions, sometimes the answer is a toss up. I have to crack down on discipline, call down to the office, speak up to be heard, dress up for work, calm down the rowdy kids who are acting up, follow up with a phone call to parents of kids who won't shut up, jazz up the lesson, wait for kids to settle down, turn down requests, lock up the room, sweep up the floor, and build up students' confidence. I have to round up missing work, shut down my computer, scale down a lesson, simmer down when I might be getting worked up, ease up when I’m getting fed up, mix up the activities before time’s up, and avoid getting tied up in politics.

What if I had a beat-up car that was a lemon (idiom)? I mean my car could break down and need a tune up. In order to get it fixed up, a grown-up service man would have to take a close-up look and size up and pin down the problems. He would hook up his computer before he writes up an invoice that breaks down the problems with my messed-up car. He might round up some guys, jack up the car, strip down the engine, break down the carburetor, clamp down some hoses, and make up some problems that don’t exist. Since all I can do is stare down a broken engine, gas up my tank, pump up my tires, and pay up my bills, I can just hope he doesn’t cook up some unnecessary costs and shake me down to cough up some money I shouldn’t have to spend.

What if I was trying to shape up at the gym with a personal trainer? He might tell me to man up and pick up the pace. He might try to wear me down to break down muscles. For me, he might have to scale down a workout he worked up or maybe he’ll ease up on me and back down when I feel like throwing up. Maybe he’ll crack down on me for eating up all the household chocolate. Maybe two trainers could gang up on me and stare me down until I can measure up. Maybe they’ll follow up by telling me to suck it up until I cramp up and need a rub down. When it’s all over, I can settle down, cheer up, strip down, shower up, mop up the floor after I’ve washed up, dress up in my pajamas, turn down the sheets, and wind down by opening up a book to catch up on my favorite characters. I can settle down until it’s time to shut down the lights, which is hands down the best part of the day.

Okay, so we use the words for uncountable reasons, which is difficult enough to understand, but we use up and down with the SAME words. How confusing is that? We touch down an airplane and touch up paint. We settle down emotionally and settle up a bet. We turn down an offer and turn up the pressure. We pay down the loan and pay up on a bill. We write down a blog post, and when we’re done, we have a write up. We crack down on criminals and crack up laughing. We bring down the mafia and bring up a problem. We wash down the dog, and when we’re done, he’s been washed up. We talk down a jumper and talk up our foolish ideas. We screw down a screw and screw up the project. We can drive down or drive up a road, mop down a floor or mop it up, be told to slow down or slow up, be tied down or tied up, soap down and soap up, lock down and lock up, pin down or pin up, and back down or back up. After a beat down, we’re beat up; or after a throw down, we can throw up. We can shoot down an idea and shoot up drugs. We can knock down a wall and knock up our wives. We can take down an empire and take up knitting. We brush down a horse, and when we’re done, it’s brushed up. We can break down an idea and break up with our girlfriend. Is it time to close down or close up?

It all seems so confusing to me with so many meanings for two such simple words. I was thinking, if you enjoyed my mental melt down, maybe you could print up my blog, pick it up from the printer, hold it up or hang it up or stick it up on the refrigerator or pin it up on the wall. Or turn down my suggestion and wad it up or tear it up. By now, you probably don’t know if you’re coming down or going up, yet more than 15% of the words used in this mixed-up article are up and down. Do we as English speakers really know what those two little words mean?